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The Bridges of Fairview & Butler

A draft of this post was originally mostly written back in 2018 as a Butler Tarkington newsletter article, but since I had just written a post about the proposed Fairview/Butler Lake, I wanted an article which focused on another aspect of the neighborhood, so this was shelved. Currently, I’m in the middle of researching a few different topics, so it seems like a good time to call this post up from the minors.

Anyway, most everyone knows about Fairview Park, originally owned and operated by the Citizens Street Railway Company (and its successors), and now the site of Butler University. The almost 250 acre park boasted a number of amenities over the course of its 30 year history, including diving horses, a band shell for concerts, fountains, mini-train rides for the kids, horse carriage rides, a pistol range, pony race course, and the natural beauty of the meadows and wooded hills of the park.

In the lower part of the Butler campus along the canal is the area now called Holcomb Gardens and today a small foot bridge across the canal provides access to the Canal Towpath. When Fairview Park was still in operation, the pre-Holcomb Gardens area was the site of the small train ride for kids and race course, and a boathouse which rented watercraft for excursions on the canal. A bridge adjacent to the boathouse allowed park visitors to explore the area along the White River, or to walk or ride bikes on the Towpath. The wooded hills of Butler's campus are one of the few reminders of the former Fairview, as the development of the university has pretty much eliminated all other signs of the park. However, one remnant remains. Sort of. 

The bridge that is in Holcomb Gardens today did not exist, but just a short distance downstream, on the opposite bank of the canal, is a concrete structure. The slides below show the structure from two angles:

This is an abutment left from the Fairview Park bridge over the canal, and as far as I can tell, the last remaining evidence of the park, aside from the natural features. The bridge itself was originally a simple truss style, and was close to the Fairview Boathouse, which occupied the canal bank opposite the remaining bridge abutment. The boathouse occupied the eastern bank of the canal just south of the current bridge. Below is postcard of the original bridge and the boathouse. While the date is listed as circa 1910, I suspect the date may be inaccurate. 

Credit: Indiana Memory & The Indiana Album Finch Collection.

It isn't clear the material used for the bridge, although it looks like wood beams. Another image from the Indiana Historical Society shows the bridge from a position north of the boathouse. This image is dated 1899:

Credit: Indiana Historical Society.

On the westside of the canal, where the abutment is, there is a clearly visible pathway dropping off the towpath from the bridge location to allow access to the land beyond the towpath. However, on the opposite side of the canal, the Butler/Fairview side, there is no remnant of the bridge. Below is a 'then and now' slider image (click on the black arrows on the right and left side of the image) of the abutment from a 1903 image from the Indiana Historical Society, and an image I took a few years ago.

Interestingly, in the 1903 image above, there is no bridge, and the abutment is much smaller than it appears today. Research indicates that a larger iron bridge was placed at this location prior to the demise of Fairview, so perhaps the abutment that is there now was reinforced to handle the additional weight, and the 1903 image was taken in the interim between bridges. Also, it appears the boathouse at Fairview was discontinued in 1906, not long after this image was taken:

Credit: May 03, 1906 Indianapolis News

Images of this new (er) bridge are not as common as the old one, although some can be found. The image below is from a June 16, 1928 Indianapolis Star story discussing the recent relocation of Butler to the new Fairview campus. The boathouse is gone, and the towpath is seen on the right.

Credit: June 16, 1928 Indianapolis Star

The bridge continued to be used following Butler's relocation, and references to its use are common in the Butler Collegian newspaper in the 1930's and 1940's. Unfortunately, I could not locate a map which showed the bridge in place during any time period. The Sanborn and Baist maps from the late 1800's through to the 1940's didn't cover this corner of the city, and other maps did not have sufficient detail.  

The 1932 Butler University yearbook, The Drift, contains an illustration depicting the iron bridge spanning the canal, while students enjoy studying on the Tow Path. Aerial images from the early 1940’s also show a bridge still in place at this location. The Indianapolis News from July 4, 1955, included a photo of two boys fishing from the "old iron bridge over the water company's canal near Butler University." But the iron bridge's end was close at hand and in the September 27, 1955 edition of the Collegian, a short news brief noted the removal of the bridge after the water company had condemned the structure the prior week. The brief also incorrectly noted the bridge had been constructed in 1855.  

Apparently after the bridge was removed, a deal was struck between the water company and Butler University to allow the university to build a new bridge near the site of the old bridge. Strangely, this agreement is memorialized on a plaque mounted on a stone monument near the site of the old bridge(s). The other side of the monument has another plaque describing the history of the Central Canal. The plaque also notes the monument was the gift of the student council of 1958-59.


Butler University, "The Drift (1932)" (1932). Butler Yearbooks. 19.

Butler Collegian, editions noted above.

Indianapolis Star & News, editions noted above.

Indiana Historical Society, Digital Images, as noted above.

Indiana Memory & The Indiana Album Finch Collection

Encyclopedia of Indianapolis

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1 Comment

Mar 19, 2020

Excellent pictures and primary sources.

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